TJ Dillashaw began 2019 as the UFC men’s bantamweight champion and one of the highest-ranking pound-for-pound fighters in the world. The year quickly took an unforeseen turn.
Dillashaw challenged flyweight champion Henry Cejudo in January to become the first UFC champion to lose weight to win a second title. What happened next can safely be described as one of the greatest sin in UFC history.
Dillashaw knocked out Cejudo in just 32 seconds, and two months later Dillashaw announced that he had tested positive for erythropoietin (EPO) before the fight. He was banned from the US Anti-Doping Agency for two years and the UFC forced him to give up his bantamweight championship.
Dillashaw confirmed that he had ingested the banned substance and said that he did so because his body began to fail when he transitioned to a lighter weight class. Then he disappeared from the public eye.
This weekend, Dillashaw (16-4) returns to the Octagon for the first time in 2½ years for the main event of a UFC Fight Night in Las Vegas and meets ESPN’s number 3 in bantamweight Cory Sandhagen (14-2). Should the 35-year-old Dillashaw win, he could well earn a chance to recapture his £ 135 title in his next fight.
Dillashaw went into one of the biggest fights of his career and spoke to ESPN about his nerves and expectations.
Editor’s note: Some comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.
How he feels when his return approaches
You get the nervousness. You’ll never get it, no matter what. Even if you fight seven times a year, you still get the camp jitter. That’s the fun part. You have to learn to enjoy them. So it’s an exciting time for me – to take to the streets, focus on my fight, be the main event, go out there and show off.
In his time without fighting
I’ve said it was a blessing to have those two years off to find out what I’ll do after the fight – instead of finding out when I’m done. I now know I will be fine and fighting is not what I have to do the rest of my life to pay my bills. So it’s been nice to settle down the last two years. I did not miss the attention. I didn’t miss the nervousness.
Under the pressure he is feeling
Is there any pressure to prove myself after what happens? I mean, that’s a question for other people. I know the truth and I don’t really care. I will not put this pressure on myself.
Even before one of the cops — I was under pressure. This “fear pressure” makes you the best. I have this pressure in every training session, in every lap. I don’t want to lose a lap, a scramble or a sprint. All of this is driven by this fearful pressure I put on myself. As long as you can hone that pressure in the right way – some people get scared and freeze and don’t perform – I’m going to get scared and turn into an animal, see red, and get done. It’s just about controlling it.
TJ Dillashaw says he has no excuses and explains the factors that led to his drug test positive for EPO.
About what he expects to hear from fans
I’m sure there are still fans out there who are mad at me. I’ve learned throughout my career that no matter what, I’ll be the bad guy. Especially this story that years ago I competed against my old team, Team Alpha Male, and now the failed drug test. I’ll have it, but that’s just the reality of being in the spotlight. Look at Conor McGregor. Everyone hated him until he became the man; now everyone wants to hate him again. It’s just the name of the game. I’m going out and winning this fight and everyone will forget what happened.
About dealing with negativity
It will likely always follow, but that is one of the reasons why it was important to be open. I’ve been open about it since day 1 because I’m leaving it behind. And I’m not just leaving it behind so I don’t have to answer it anymore, but also because it’s like therapy, you see? You go to a therapist to talk about what is bothering you and what is bothering you so that you no longer have that. I made it through. It doesn’t bother me anymore because I was so open about it. You could say that was the right thing to do, but the best for me.
Some things are overlooked because the negative is easy to point out. Some things I’ve said in interviews are overlooked because people just want to see the negative. Like that print of “Was I just because of what I did?” But everyone needs to know that the United States Anti-Doping Agency did its job and checked me out. They went back and tested every sample I had on file because they wanted to make sure I hadn’t cheated in the past. You can go back and all of this is very public. But I wouldn’t say that it bothers me.
When returning against a high-ranking opponent
I turned down tune-up fights in order to master this fight. I didn’t want her. Waste of time. Perhaps a tune-up fight will help your wallet – you can make money fast – but you can’t think of a fight as a tuning-up fight. I don’t care if I’m dealing with a guy making his debut, you have to treat it like a title shot. I have to treat every fight like it’s the greatest fight in the world.
To Cory Sandhagen
Sandhagen is athletic and has some good tricks up his sleeve. I have to be aware of that. But like everyone else, he has things that he is great at that you can counteract, and he has things that he is not so good at that you can take advantage of. I think that’s how you become the best, it’s so versatile that you can be a different fighter every round and a different one in every fight. Just as Georges St-Pierre could be a different fighter, I’m not a one-trick pony where I just stand up or just grappling or just wrestling.
If you are able to do anything, your game plan may change. These guys, who have just super strong backgrounds, can’t make game plans because they have to do what they do best. I don’t have to worry about Cory putting me down and submitting me. I have to worry that he is noticeable, moves well, and throws whirling kicks. It’s scary when you have to go up against a guy who can everything. I can do it all.
On his way to regaining the championship
I want to get my belt back asap, but I do [current champion] Aljamain Sterling has to take more time with his neck injury, I could fight someone else afterwards. I don’t want to sit too long. I definitely want this title fight next, but I think this is the real title fight anyway. I’ll treat it like, “I’m going to fight the best.” Just like when I thought I beat Dominick Cruz and should still have been the champion in 2016, I battled the # 1 contender while he battled # 5 and 8 in the division. I’ll do the same: keep proving myself, building my name, and collecting checks.